By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
May 9, 2019
It is a testimony to the importance and endurance of John Guare as a major American playwright that this Obie Award-winning play, “The House of Blue Leaves,” was written in the late 1960s and that his most recent play, “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” is currently running off-Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. In between those years he’s written many award-winning plays, a musical and screenplays. Guare received the PEN/Laura Pels Master Playwright Award and the Gold Medal in Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In effect, Palm Beach Dramaworks concludes its 2018/2019 season with an emphatic exclamation point. “The House of Blue Leaves” runs May 17 through June 2.
The action takes place in October 1965 during the first visit by a reigning pope to the United States. Millions are lining up along the parade route from Queens to New York City to greet him. Among the throngs will be zookeeper Artie Shaughnessy, a wannabe Hollywood songwriter with big dreams and no discernible talent. His hope is that a papal blessing will whisk him away from Queens and into a new life in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Bunny Flingus, leaving his mentally ill wife, Bananas, behind.
With the Vietnam War constantly in the background, and the hilarity of virtually every character vying to view the pope, or receiving a blessing from the pope or maneuvering for a brief moment of fame, “The House of Blue Leaves” is a black comedy with farce and reality in stark, sudden juxtaposition. Guare, who also wrote the entertainingly bad songs “composed” by Artie, has said that “The House of Blue Leaves” is about “humiliation and the cruelties people inflict on each other.” In spite of the underlying seriousness of the play, we should be prepared for dialed up laughter.
According to Director J. Barry Lewis, his challenge is to bring the script to life by finding the comedy through the characters.
“It is a narrative story and while a farce to an extent, it is not at the same break-neck speed. It is more of a comedy in a field of the absurd,” Lewis says. “This type of theatre is complex so we generally sought out knowledgeable local actors, ones we’ve mostly worked with before, so we could quickly ramp up. Our audience is going to have fun seeing so many familiar actors in some unusual roles.”
Lewis adds, “And don’t underestimate the importance of the New York City scene and the Vietnam era of the play. There is a constant state of anxiety and high expectations of the pope’s visit. It captures the American Dream of hope. The central theme of the hollowness of seeking celebrity status is omnipresent.”
In that regard, its relevancy to today is uncanny: Celebrity worship, anxiety about our political situation and hope for its resolution.
Bruce Linser, well known to the Dramaworks audience as a director and manager of Dramaworkshop, plays Artie Shaughnessy, the zookeeper/woefully-mediocre-songwriter who is seeking fame and fortune. “I love playing Artie,” says Linser. “Guare was very mindful that comedy could undermine the character development. He’s a fascinating and heartbreaking character and I hope to bring those attributes forth so the audience will feel for him.”
Linser comes to the stage with an extensive musical performance background so he’s very comfortable playing this frustrated songwriter and performing his Grade B songs. “Artie’s musical abilities and works are good enough to pass as songs but bad enough to be funny,” Linser adds.
The two female leads have names which sound like they were made up by a sitcom writer – Artie’s girlfriend Bunny Flingus (played by Vanessa Morosco) and Artie’s wife Bananas Shaughnessy (played by Elena Maria Garcia in her Dramaworks debut).
Bunny is the downstairs neighbor who is pushing Artie to move to California in pursuit of the celebrity status they both so desperately want. “I love playing the role of Bunny as she’s excitingly unpredictable and is subject to fantasies,” says Morosco. “I also love this play, which has an incredible place in the canon of American plays, with Guare entreating the close attention of the audience as characters routinely break the fourth wall to argue their case or to express their private thoughts.”
Poor Bananas, for whom Artie is seeking an institution to take her off his hands and release him into the dreams he has for himself and Bunny. But Bananas has her moments of lucidity and insight, as well as drastic mood changes. It’s a challenging part, and has been Garcia’s “dream role.”
Why? “I feel a very close relationship to this play as I wrote my thesis on it when I studied drama,” says Garcia. “And the character of Bananas particularly fascinated me as I was drawn by her innocence as well as being in the center of a hurricane of action around her.”
The play has hilarious subplots and therefore, in addition to the three leads, there is an extensive cast featuring Irene Adjan, Jim Ballard, Austin Carroll, Elizabeth Dimon, Margery Lowe and Krystal Millie Valdes (in her Dramaworks debut). Rounding out the cast are Timothy Bowman and Pierre Tannous. Scenic design is by Victor Becker, costume design is by Brian O’Keefe, lighting design is by Kirk Bookman and sound design is by Steve Shapiro.
It promises to be a fun-filled and thought-provoking production at The Don & Ann Brown Theatre on Clematis Street.
“The House of Blue Leaves” runs May 17 through June 2. Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in downtown West Palm Beach. For tickets, call the box office at (561) 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Pictured above: From left, Vanessa Morosco, Bruce Linser and Elena Maria Garcia star in John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” The production runs May 17 through June 2 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in downtown West Palm Beach. Photo by Tim Stepien